In the narrative account of Jesus’s life written by a physician named Luke, Jesus delivers the most famous story of roadside assistance ever recorded.
According to the parable, a man is attacked by robbers and left for dead. His broken body is ignored by two religious men traveling the same road. He is eventually rescued and has his wounds tended to by a Samaritan man.
Of course, this is a story about injustice, charity, and the consequences of hypocrisy. But it’s more than that.
Jesus frequently taught in parables (or, short stories). And when we reteach his parables in a religious setting, we have a tendency to soften the story’s bite precisely because we’re teaching them in a religious setting.
This is one of those stories.
The Road of Ill-Repute
Jesus was a man of the people.
Prior to entering the roaming rabbi stage of his life, Jesus had been a construction worker for at least fifteen years. Most of his parables were centered around characters and situations his audience would have been very familiar with – like shepherds losing sheep and day laborers receiving their paychecks.
Jesus’s parables are folk stories.
They’re rooted in the lived-in experiences of an ancient Middle Eastern culture, and we can miss out on some important context when we uproot and interpret them with modern eyes.
For example, in the opening line of the story, we’re told our hapless traveler “was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is seventeen miles in length and very steep. Winding through desolate and rocky terrain, it’s lined with caves that provided ample shelter for robbers and violent revolutionaries.
But Jerusalem was the cultural, religious, and economic heart of the region, so the road was well traveled – especially by those who resided in Jericho.
And it is upon this route that our unaware traveler is attacked by robbers, and left broken, naked and bleeding on the side of the road.
The Priest and The Levite
The parables of Jesus operated on at least two different levels:
A Sunday School level.
And a Punk Rock level.
On one reading, the parable of the good Samaritan offers a simple and practical moral – help those who are in need. This is a good, safe message and definitely something the world needs more of. This is the Sunday School level of the story.
But Jesus wasn’t murdered for telling stories that encouraged people to be nice to one another. He was killed because his ministry and message offended, provoked, and challenged the preexisting power structures of his day.
We’re repeatedly told in the four Jesus narratives found in the Bible that religious scholars, scribes, and lawyers attended Jesus’s events to question, challenge, and silence him.
And this means things get a little interesting when Jesus introduces a priest and a Levite into the story.
To be a priest was to have obtained the highest level of prestige in the Jewish community. It was believed a priest had direct access to the presence of God. And a Levite was a member of a specific Jewish lineage that assisted the priests in the temple.
Because the priest and the Levite served in the temple, they had to maintain certain standards of ritual purity found in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures). And one of those standards included being forbidden to touch a dead body.
If they placed their hands upon the “half-dead” man and he died in transport, the priest and the Levite would be considered “ceremonially impure” and unable to carry out their duties at the temple for at least seven days.
And, remember, the road was dangerous. Pausing to assist could have opened them up to the same fate that had befallen the injured man.
Based on the culturally accepted interpretation of the Bible at that time, both men believed they were doing the right thing by ignoring the robbed man.
By including two very religious characters in the parable and not making them the heroes, Jesus is making a very dangerous claim to an audience that includes some very religious people:
The religious devotion of the priest and the Levite blinded them to the pain, injustice, and suffering in their own world.
This is a radical, subversive, and controversial message to come from the mouth of a traveling rabbi with no formal education.
And that is why it is so punk rock.
It’s a common trope in wisdom literature and fables for the audience to want to relate to the third character in the story (ex. “The Three Little Pigs”). And this is why it’s a tough pill for Jesus’ audience to swallow when a Samaritan shows up after the priest and the Levite.
The Samaritan people were a result of the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. While a majority of the Israelites were exiled from their homeland, a sect remained behind and intermarried with the pagan Assyrians. Their offspring – the Samaritans – were raised in a society that worshipped many gods.
They were viewed as traitors, half-breeds, enemies, and heretics. And they were treated as such.
Jesus is going for shock value – there wasn’t a more detestable people group to the first-century Jews than the Samaritans.
The Samaritan, we’re told, approaches the injured man and tend to his wounds. He brings him to an inn where he takes care of him overnight.
Not only that, he pays for the beaten man’s room and board for two additional days. And then he offers to reimburse the innkeeper if the man needs more time to recover.
If Jesus was simply interested in punking the religious elites and pandering to his fan base, he could’ve easily made the third character a lowly farmer or shepherd. But he doesn’t – instead, Jesus offends everybody by making the hero a Samaritan.
Jesus – who was Jewish – was showing his audience that the Jewish people didn’t have a monopoly on compassion, virtue, and love.
This entire episode is initiated when a self-righteous lawyer – or, “expert in the Torah” – asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
In the text, we’re told he asked the question “to justify himself.”
And that’s not a small detail.
He already thinks he knows the answer. The “love your neighbor” command actually comes from the Torah. And for centuries, “neighbor” had been interpreted to mean “fellow Israelite.”
Instead of answering the loaded question, Jesus showed him it was the wrong question. In response, Jesus told him it what it means to be a neighbor.
At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the Lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to the beaten man?”
And the Lawyer – who can’t even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan” – replies, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Any reading of this parable that frames you or your tribe as the “good Samaritan” should be treated as complete nonsense.
This ancient story is not an opportunity to pat yourself on the back for the good you do. It’s meant to dig into your bones and show you a new way to be human.
The Samaritans are the people group from which you believe no good can come. They’re the people you antagonize on social media and write off as dangerous or worthless.
If we’re anyone in the story, it’s the lawyer trying to determine the limits of his love.
In other words, if you read this parable and think, “If only they could see it this way,” then you’re reading the parable wrong.
It’s not about them.
It’s about you.
We all have an internal Rolodex that tells us who’s in, who’s out, who deserves mercy, and who deserves to be held in contempt. And a lot of that is (still) shaped by our tribal identity.
And maybe your Samaritans are religious people. And I totally get that.
But that doesn’t mean this story can’t speak to you.
The parables of Jesus are supposed to be paradigm shifting.
They are designed to disrupt and overturn your understanding of how the world works.
Like the Lawyer, who discovered his preconceived notion of who deserved love was too small.
Regardless of my beliefs and unbeliefs about God, I see this truth reveal itself to me all the time.
I’m constantly (and sometimes painfully) being made aware that my categorical boxes and ideological worldview are inadequate tools to address reality.
Because that’s what happens when you come into contact with the Divine – whether that be in the pages of great literature, the rays of a crisp morning sunrise, or in the kindness of a stranger – you come away changed.
And let that be our expectation whenever we wrestle with these ancient stories.